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What PPC/PPE is required for the task?

What is your firefighting philosophy?

As I travel the world researching advancements in PPC/PPE, I often hear firefighters seeking the very latest technology in the component makeup of firefighting gear. Sometimes this is a quantum leap from where they currently are. This time of enhancement and upgrading is quite exciting and presents a golden opportunity often missed by fire departments.

I have seen a number of the larger departments take good advantage of latest technology, only to continue to apply 1950’s firefighting practices. In real and holistic terms of the firefighter’s protection, this can devalue the investment in PPE/PPC by as much as 25%.

Some departments occasionally ask manufacturers or Standards bodies to overcome or resolve a particular safety problem, when a portion of the resolution can be found in updating operational practices.

One of the key ways to optimise the value of the protection of the firefighter, as well as the purchase, is to review your firefighting philosophy and therefore practices. We often hear that this occurs directly after a “line of duty death”, but PPE upgrades provide the perfect opportunity to get the most out of the enhanced protection.

Very often a forensic analyses of a “near miss” report, has led departments to target a preferred outcome in operational practices that can be assisted by the purchase of improved technology. One of the better examples of this is fireground accountability, and the movement from B/A tallies with unrealistic manual air use calculations, to telemetry with tracking and real time air use monitoring.

The same can be said for Structural Firefighting PPC. When this clothing changed to better protect firefighters some time ago, a few firefighters still wanted to expose some skin to feel the effects of the fire, to gauge the severity of their hostile work environment. A far safer practice was the comprehensive use of Thermal Imaging Cameras (TIC), which was seen to better optimise firefighter protection as well as the component technology in the PPC.

Thermal impacts can be severe on Structural Firefighting PPC.

Thermal impacts can be severe on Structural Firefighting PPC.

So what is your departments Firefighting philosophy and how does that form part of your protection and what does that mean when purchasing PPE? Do you deliver a high-risk offensive attack on all structural fires, all the time every time? Or do you have a balanced “Risk Vs. Gain” approach, which delivers a considered amount of risk, which is directly proportional to the potential or likely outcomes. From this consideration one should not assume that we should be any less protected from the “unforseen” fire phenomena, by purchasing inferior quality or lower performance components. A balanced and well considered firefighting philosophy simply reduces the frequency of potentially hazardous exposures.

Training and experience also plays a critical part in our Firefighting philosophy and therefore our use of PPC. Live fire training provides an individual firefighter a good understanding of the critical link between their body’s performance and their PPC protection performance at given work rates in certain fire environments. Interestingly training often focuses on the more frequent fire scenarios. The below table shows why there may need to be more training in the Low Frequency (LF) and High Risk (HR) scenarios.

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  • For those firefighters in stations/departments who encounter mostly LF & LR incidents, likelihood of damaging exposures is lower due to the mostly lower risk.
  • For those firefighters in stations/departments who encounter mostly HF & LR incidents, likelihood of damaging exposures is lower as they are gaining experience and the incident risks are mostly low.
  • For those firefighters in stations/departments who encounter mostly HF & HR incidents, likelihood of damaging exposures is slightly higher, but they are gaining experience to deal with the higher risk.
  • However the combination of LF & HR, are the circumstances, which sees the likelihood of damaging exposures being much higher.

Therefore training based on well identified risk assessments, will serve to assist in the protection of firefighters.

Just as training plays a critical role, so to does staffing and response and is also linked to the type of PPC within a department and the exposure on firefighters. This is very evident in the excellent landmark residential fire studies released in April 2010, by the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in conjunction with the IAFF, IAFC, WPI and CFAI Risk. These studies are amongst the most valuable studies to be conducted in our firefighting service/industry anywhere in the world. It clearly shows and quantifies what we have always felt and known about reduced crew sizes. Governments often focus on the “time of response” but often forget the other critical component in the service delivery equation. This is the “weight of response.” These studies, both the High Rise study and the Fireground Field Experiments, prove that the size of the Firefighting crews has a substantial effect on the fire service’s ability to protect lives and properties in residential and high rise fires. They were conducted by a broad coalition in the scientific, firefighting and public safety communities. The studies found that 4 person Firefighting crews were able to complete the 22 essential firefighting and rescue tasks in a typical residential structure 30% faster than 2 person crews and 25 % faster than 3 person crews. It also highlighted the increases in heart rate and thermal loads placed upon firefighters who tried to complete the tasks, with diminished crew sizes. These physiological effects on firefighters are directly linked to crews sizes and highlights the real need to have correct crew sizes as well as the best possible Structural Firefighting PPC including station uniform.

The culture of Firefighting philosophy should change as a department grows to meet the needs of the community. The old adage of first in last out is rapidly disappearing. Some contemporary fire services have moved to “alarm”/ responses increasing in increments of odd numbers. This caters for far better dedicated functions on the fireground with better rotations of crews.

To further assist in the protection of firefighters, many fire services/firefighters are formalising the “Hot, Warm and Cold Zones” demarcation into their command strategies. This strategy, which has been in use for a long time in Haz-Mat incidents, is greatly assisting in improved “Dynamic Risk Assessments” in all emergency incidents.

The “Hot Zone” doesn’t always have to mean the presence of heat. It could simply be described as “the area of an emergency incident, with hazards or potential hazards, that have the ability or potential to cause the firefighter or the public to be exposed to damage, trauma or injury”.

It can even be applied to a simple but often highly visual and traumatic road traffic crash (RTC) or Motor Vehicle Accident (MVA). The Incident Controller/Commander may wish to limit the number of firefighters exposed to a highly traumatic incident to just those needed to achieve the task, in the interest of the mental health of fire and rescue responders.

Just one of many examples of “Hot, Warm and Cold Zones.”

Just one of many examples of “Hot, Warm and Cold Zones.”

Segregating the incident into these zones certainly assists with managing the issue of maintaining the correct PPC/PPE. At a structural fire if you are in “the area of an emergency incident, with hazards or potential hazards, that have the ability or potential to cause you to be exposed to damage, or injury” then you need to be protected by wearing your structural firefighting ensemble.

Especially if the exposure risk is any one or a combination of the following;

  • Heat
  • Flame
  • Chemicals
  • Water
  • Blood Bourn Pathogens
  • Or Carcinogenic Particulate Matter.When referring to Structural Firefighting Personal Protective Clothing, “Structural” often means “All structures fixed or mobile and includes all things from the “built environment,” i.e. transportation, bridges, or even rubbish bin fires. They are those incidents which require heat flame, moisture, chemical, blood bourn pathogens, particulate material and respiratory protection at a higher level than Wildland Firefighting.”

I occasionally hear that “my turn out gear is hot”! However when we explore what tasks were being performed for the majority of the time they felt hot, they were very often carrying out ancillary or supportive tasks that were being conducted in the Warm or Cold Zone of the incident.

Contemporary and well trained fire services are confident enough to conduct Dynamic Risk Assessments of the tasks within the incident and not just the incident in general. This allows firefighters to wear the correct PPC/PPE that is required for the allocated task and not just have a blanket PPC/PPE requirement for the entire incident.

Therefore a well communicated and delineated “Hot, Warm and Cold Zone” on the incident ground, facilitates a far more appropriate selection of PPC.

The importance of these controls becomes critical on very hot days when a sensible Dressing Down Philosophy to correctly manage meta-bolic heat release issues, comes to the fore.

This will allow for the sensible different requirements of internal and external Firefighting activities in Structural Firefighting PPC/PPE in the Hot Zone, compared to patient care or incident management for example in a Cold Zone.

Stay safe until our next article on PPC/PPE.

For more information, email markgribble7@bigpond.com

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International Standards Organisation (ISO) and Standards Australia representative for firefighting PPE.